8 Tips for Getting Back to Sleep in the Middle of the Night

Woman texting and reading on smartphone in bed in midnight

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Sleep is an essential pillar of wellness. For optimal cognition, a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night is recommended. However, we all know that sleep training a baby, stress, and traveling are just a few ways we end up getting less sleep than we need.

Outside of life circumstances, sleep disturbances arise due to many factors. Chronic pain is a known trigger for sleep issues, often due to pain becoming so severe it halts the sleep cycle, resulting in waking up in the middle of the night.

A 2019 study from The Journal of Aging and Health found loneliness to indicate more sleep disturbances, correlating poor sleep quality with loneliness amongst aging folks.

We can imagine individuals of any age experiencing loneliness may be particularly impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What to Do If You Can’t Fall Back Asleep

Missing out on much-needed hours of sleep can take a toll on you physically, emotionally, and mentally.

If you find that your sleep disturbances impact your life to the point where your daily functioning suffers, it is time to reach out to your medical provider.

While there may be underlying causes for sleep disturbances that require a professional’s support, there are things we can all do to improve our sleep hygiene regardless of the cause. So, we gathered eight tips you can rely on to get you back to snoozing in no time.

Don’t Turn the Lights On

Let’s say you find yourself awake with little confidence you’ll be falling back asleep anytime soon. You may feel a temptation to flip on the light so you can walk to the bathroom or read a book. Our bodies are ultra-sensitive to light exposure, especially during the hours our body expects to be asleep.

Turning on the lights can disrupt the amount of melatonin released in your body, thus triggering wakefulness.

Tip: Get a Night Light Instead

If you happen to find yourself waking up to use the bathroom more often than not, it may be worth installing a nightlight so you can safely see your way without feeling fully alert by the time you’re done taking care of business.

Avoid Blue Light

When we’re unexpectedly awake in the middle of the night, it can be super tempting to roll over, grab our phone, and get to scrolling. However, it is crucial to avoid the urge for the same reason mentioned in the above tip.

While all light can suppress melatonin production, blue light is particularly potent in doing so. When our brains are exposed to bright light, we naturally produce less melatonin. Remember, melatonin is the hormone that helps us feel sleepy, so having less of it means it is harder to fall asleep.

Besides, scrolling through the news, social media, or—worst of all—your emails will wake your brain up, making it even harder to fall back asleep.

Try Some Guided Breathing

It is common to hear meditation recommended to aid any sleep woes. Meditation is an excellent option and ideally should be used before bed for optimal rest throughout the night.

For those who are meditation novices, a meditation app can be helpful. However, we just explained why light isn’t your friend for these midnight wake-ups, so that means grabbing your phone to use a meditation app upon jolting awake isn’t ideal.

Instead, try some guided breathing. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a relaxing exercise that soothes the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathe in through the nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and exhale for eight counts through pursed lips. Repeat a minimum of four times and see if you start to feel sleepy.

You can also try diaphragmatic breathing. Lay down and place one hand on your belly, breathe in through your nose, and let the air expand your belly—the hand on your belly will rise up as you do so. Exhale through pursed lips, allowing the hand on your belly to move back down.

Refrain From Checking the Time

We’ve all done it. We realize we aren’t going to fall back asleep instantly as we had hoped, so we find our eyes settling on the clock, obsessively watching every minute pass. Though this is difficult, try your best to avoid checking the time.

Anxiously watching the clock tends to spike anxiety and may encourage you to calculate how little sleep you'll be getting.

Tip: Move Your Clock Out of Sight

Happen to have a clock right in your line of sight when you’re in bed? Try moving it somewhere else to nip that temptation in the bud.

Do an Activity With the Lights Off

Been staring at the ceiling for what feels like hours? Rather than laying in bed and wishing yourself back to sleep, it is actually helpful to get out of bed and try a relaxing activity—just be sure to keep the lights off.

For example, try listening to an audiobook or relaxing sleep sounds in order to get yourself in the mood for sleep.

Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a mindfulness exercise that can work wonders on body tension.

Furthermore, focusing on your body rather than your mind can promote further relaxation since it quiets mental chatter. It is rather simple, too, making it easy to turn to when you’re lying in bed.

As you breathe in, begin to tense a group of your muscles. Then, when you exhale, relax that same group of muscles. Try to do this exercise from head to toe, starting with your facial muscles and ending with your feet. Repeat as needed. 

Visualize Your Worries Disappearing

Are you worried about the task you forgot to do at work? A conversation with your spouse you’re dreading? An upcoming stressful event? Then this guided visualization is for you.

As you lay in bed, bring up the image of the worry-inducing event. Perhaps you see yourself sitting in your boss’s office or driving to an obligation you’re not interested in going to. Notice the details that come into frame, how your body feels as you allow yourself to lean into the visualization rather than fight the discomfort.

Once you feel you’ve taken in all the details and nuances, pretend you’re taking a whiteboard eraser and imagine wiping out the image entirely until you see a blank wall. Continue this as often as needed until you feel relaxed and sleepy.

Determine the Root Cause

While this final tip isn’t specifically for lulling you back to sleep, it is important. First, refrain from drinking coffee at least 6 hours before your usual bedtime. Eating heavy meals or snacks, drinking alcohol, watching tv, and intense exercise should be avoided for a couple of hours before bedtime.

If you find yourself experiencing sleep disturbances regularly, it is time to reach out to your doctor for some support.

Substance abuse, trauma, and depression can all be contributors to sleep issues—don’t be afraid to seek the help of a trusted mental health professional as well.

A Word From Verywell

You’re never alone. It isn’t uncommon to be jolted awake due to ongoing crises, suicidal ideation, or anxiety. If you’re in need of immediate support, there are services available to you that are more than happy to assist you.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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